Infamous Scribblers: 10 Things I Learned

I finished reading Eric Burns’ Infamous Scribblers: The Founding Fathers and the Rowdy Beginnings of American Journalism [Amazon] several months ago. It was a fun, comparatively fast read; I guarantee it will change your opinion of American history’s biggest names: Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, even George Washington.

What has always frustrated me is the sheer amount of information that I consume, and then promptly forget. So I’ve decided to write down at least 10 “learnings” from each book that I finish. I mean, who wants to forget that Alexander Hamilton had a notorious affair with a 23-year old married woman? :)

  1. Lewinsky-gate? Try Jefferson-gate. Or Hamilton-gate (Alexander)
  2. American journalism was intended as a tool to serve selfish causes. It was personal, it was passionate. Objective reporting for the public good arose much later. For a well-informed citizenry, it’s helpful to have both (neutral and biased/selfish opinions). Yet, with the exception of Fox News, U.S. media has become almost too neutral and even-handed
  3. Nature likes the number two – 2 political parties, 2-person relationships, 2 genders, etc. Systems of 3 are unstable and thus rare. Book does a great job describing this tension (eg, the Federalists vs the Republicans, Hamilton vs Jefferson, Britain vs the U.S.)
  4. “The press can not only strike while the iron is hot…it can heat it by continually striking.” – Benjamin Franklin. Perfect example? Sam Adams through the Boston Gazette. Wonderful quote
  5. Even old hickory George was not immune to the emotional power (and flammability) of the press. Some believe he gave up the presidency as a result of especially harsh and unabated attacks led by the Aurora newspaper
  6. Success requires timing and luck (however you define luck). Example? Thomas Paine’s Common Sense. It came out at a personal and professional low point in his life; no rational person would have predicted its immense popularity and enduring historic impact (page 205)
  7. “Success breeds a thousand fathers, and failure is an orphan.” Throughout history, influential men have taken morally gray shortcuts to achieve their goals (eg, Sam Adams)
  8. Interesting how norms change over time. In the founding days of American journalism, it was normal for powerful men to passionately debate through public channels (eg, newspapers). It was also acceptable for famous men to use pen names
  9. Interesting how norms change over time, part 2: in the 1700s children began working at the age of 6 to become experts at a useful craft. Ben Franklin did this. Why don’t we teach children commercially valuable skills today? Computer science in middle school? Medicine in high school?
  10. Really admire Ben Franklin’s diligent, systematic study of successful writers and their works (eg, Joseph Addison), in order to improve his own. My interest in, and respect for, Franklin continues to increase: he married a woman who most would say was below his level, but he remained devoted to her as a husband…while (rumor has it) he frequently cheated. (page 87)

Extra credit:

  1. Science itself is a remarkable demonstration of punctuated evolution, full of significant leaps (eg, small pox inoculation) and emotional backpedaling (eg, people ruining Cotton Mather’s reputation and livelihood for his support of it). Side note: Washington’s death was hastened by a “bleeding” process, back then believed to be a kind of last-resort for unknown maladies
  2. The Federal Convention of 1787, which authored the Declaration of Independence, was not a gathering of like-minded citizens beyond reproach, but a group of controversial, passionate men who fought tooth-and-nail and only authored the document through heated negotiation & compromise
  3. Many early newspapers were endowed by great men with personal bones to pick. (eg, Jefferson and The National Gazette as a Republican mouthpiece)

Jeff Bezos sharing some wisdom

…at the 2012 re:Invent fireside chat with Amazon’s CTO, Werner Vogels.

Full video here.

My sporadic notes here. Mostly his words, with some editorializing and annotation:

  • Flywheels are important (I take this to mean something that will gain speed over time)
  • Some things won’t change in 10 years – focus on those. For example: people will always want cheaper prices, faster & better service
  • If you’re ok being misunderstood for long periods of time, you can ramp up your rate of experimentation
  • It’s easy to invent new things that customers don’t care about
  • It’s all about rate of innovation (echoes Eric Ries and his quote about moving through the build-measure-learn feedback loop as quickly as possible)
  • Used to be 30% product, 70% promotion/service; now it’s 70% product, 30% promotion/service
  • Bezos does front line work from time to time, e.g. on factory floor, in call center
  • 10K year clock is about long-term thinking. If I asked you to solve world hunger in 5 years, you’d say no way. But if I asked you to solve world hunger in 100 years, you’d think about it. The problem is the same, but the timeframe has changed
  • If you wanted to catch a wave, you’ll never do it. What you should do is position yourself and catch the wave
  • Missionaries build better products. I’ll take a missionary over a mercenary any day
  • Passion and customer centricity will take you an awful long way

What I Talk About When I Talk About Murakami

I recently finished Murakami’s amazing memoir-ish book, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running [Kindle].

I love Murakami’s writing, everything from his simple short stories to his hauntingly thoughtful novels.

I’m a big believer in reading as a mirror to your own life. You love the authors you love because in many ways, they reflect who you are or who you want to be. It could be their portrayal of a specific character; it could be their writing style and how it feels so sympatico to your own. It’s a deeply personal experience and when it clicks, it clicks. Murakami just clicks for me.

Anyhow as I’m reading What I Talk About…I found myself reflexively (what do you call it when you do something and don’t even notice you’re doing it?) highlighting quotes like mad. I want to share some of my favorites with you.

On being alone:

It might be a little silly for someone getting to be my age to put this into words, but I just want to make sure I get the facts down clearly: I’m the kind of person who likes to be by himself. To put a finer point on it, I’m the type of person who doesn’t find it painful to be alone. I find spending an hour or two every day running alone, not speaking to anyone, as well as four or five hours alone at my desk, to be neither difficult nor boring. I’ve had this tendency ever since I was young, when, given a choice, I much preferred reading books on my own or concentrating on listening to music over being with someone else. I could always think of things to do by myself.

On growing up:

At any rate, that’s how I started running. Thirty-three – that’s how old I was then. Still young enough, although no longer a young man. The age that Jesus Christ died. The age that Scott Fitzgerald started to go downhill. That age may be a kind of crossroads in life. That was the age when I began my life as a runner, and it was my belated, but real, starting point as a novelist.

On being himself:

What I mean is, I didn’t start running because somebody asked me to become a runner. Just like I didn’t become a novelist because someone asked me to. One day, out of the blue, I wanted to write a novel. And one day, out of the blue, I started to run – simply because I wanted to. I’ve always done whatever I felt like doing in life. People may try to stop me, and convince me I’m wrong, but I won’t change.

On persistence:

I think certain types of processes don’t allow for any variation. If you have to be part of that process, all you can do is transform – or perhaps distort – yourself through that persistent repetition, and make that process a part of your own personality.

On prioritizing:

I’m struck by how, except when you’re young, you really need to prioritize in life, figuring out in what order you should divide up your time and energy.

Finally, on writing (I love the fugu analogy):

Basically I agree with the view that writing novels is an unhealthy type of work. When we set off to write a novel, when we use writing to create a story, like it or not a kind of toxin that lies deep down in all humanity rises to the surface. All writers have to come face-to-face with this toxin and, aware of the danger involved, discover a way to deal with it, because otherwise no creative activity in the real sense can take place. (Please excuse the strange analogy: with a fugu fish, the tastiest part is the portion near the poison – this might be something similar to what I’m getting at.)

What is your favorite Murakami book or story?

1000 Ways To Live Forever

So many of you know about my obsession with increasing lifespan and eventually living forever.

I started a Tumblr called “1000 Ways To Live Forever“. Every day or two, I’ll add a new item and countdown from 1000 to 1. I’ll do my best to make each item practical and something you can act on immediately, with clear long-term benefits (to health, happiness, etc). Plus, I’m excited to try Tumblr given its amazing recent growth. Its simplicity and fun UI have been impressive so far. As a blogging platform, it definitely sees the future better than WordPress.

I’m still writing and updating my book “How To Live Forever“. 1000 ways will help me build an audience and share my findings.

Cheers!

November “performance review”: What did I do well? What did I suck at? How will December be better?

Here’s what happened in November. Sharing will help with accountability and as a way to improve in December.

What I did well:

1. Seeing a new city every month. Went to Boston, Atlanta (for Big Nerd Ranch), and Austin (childhood friend’s wedding). None were new cities but I won’t be too strict here :) I enjoy flying so much that just being on an airplane is good enough

2. Programming. Took a Python course at Big Nerd Ranch, which was a great experience. Also completed several intro Django tutorials. Finally, I helped (=observed) Matt and team implement new Hyperink features, in particular author reporting and Survata (survey-wall for free content)

3. How To Live Forever. Published V1 to Hyperink and Kindle, and started using Scrivener (which has been AWESOME for managing the manuscripts and research). I also read Fantastic Voyage, a great life extension book by Ray Kurzweil. Finally, I’ve stepped up my consumption of various supplements (eg, vitamins, minerals) and made tweaks to my diet (eg, +flaxseeds, +veggies, +tea, -carbs, -sugars).

4. KevinRandom.com. It’s live, which is a nice first step :) Wrote a few posts on things like Evernote and my Tokyo trip, and began adding details to each list item

5. Created a business card that I like

6. Entered The New Yorker cartoon caption contest several times (still no finalists!)

Didn’t do well (and how I’ll fix in December):

In general, I’m doing too many different things. To paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, I need to increase my “teeth to tail ratio”. I also need to be more goal-oriented (focus on outcomes, not activities). Specifically:

  • Programming: would love to own a useful Hyperink feature. In December, I’m taking the lead on adding recommended products to all book product pages. Then comes Android!
  • How To Live Forever: need a dedicated site to promote its content and concepts. Will do this next month
  • In general, document more thoughts and progress on this site. Expect me to post more frequently and find the right ways to promote on Twitter and Facebook

Thanks for reading! As always, would love to hear what you guys are doing, what’s working and what’s not, and particularly if there’s any overlap with what I’m doing. Cheers.